In 2014, top UK wine merchant Farr Vintners invited a panel of top wine writers to a blind tasting. The event pitted four New Zealand chardonnays against 17 considerably more expensive offerings from Burgundy in France. The result? A New Zealand wine won every category except one, where it came equal first.
The Kiwi chardonnays all came from the same producer: Kumeu River, a boutique operation in Kumeu, a small wine region 35-minutes northwest of Auckland. Don't worry if you've never heard of it, I hadn't either. Nor had my parents and they live in Auckland. So I recruited local expert John McFarlane, founder of NZ Wine Pro, to show us around this mysterious, multi-award-winning gem that's a mere cork pop from the city.
We begin at the region's oldest vineyard, Babich Wines. Started in 1912 by Dalmatian immigrant Josip Babich, it's still a traditional, family-run affair (don't expect to find it open on a Sunday) that has won a swag of awards including New Zealand Winery of the Year. It produces a varied range that includes a delicate rose, a tropical sauvignon blanc and a light, perfumed syrah. Don't be fooled by the vines outside the tasting room, though, almost all of its grapes come from vineyards in Marlborough and Hawke's Bay.
"Auckland has a marginal climate for growing grapes," explains McFarlane. "It's just too wet and humid."
One grape that can flourish here is chardonnay, as proven by Kumeu River's Burgundy beaters. At the estate's small cellar door on State Highway 16, we meet marketing manager Paul Brajkovich, who along with his three siblings now runs the winery started by their Dalmatian grandparents.
I persuade my ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) parents to join me for a tasting and we sample six incarnations, from the entry-level 2020 Kumeu Village to the premium 2015 Hunting Hill. That they end up buying two bottles to take home tells you how deliciously nuanced these chardonnays are compared to the oak-tainted butter bombs that have given the varietal a bad name.
Lunch is at The Hunting Lodge, a picturesque 32-hectare winery with a welcoming cellar door, a relaxed alfresco lawn bar and an upscale restaurant housed in an airy 19th-century timber homestead. Highlights from the regional produce-driven menu include delicate citrus-cured salmon, a rich, slow-cooked pork belly and an Insta-worthy swan-shaped profiterole in a moat of chocolate sauce. All of which pairs perfectly with the estate's deliciously fragrant 2020 albarino.
Between tastings, McFarlane shows us another Kumeu highlight, the striking west coast black sand beach of Muriwai. Between August and March, the beach's towering rocky outcrops host a vast colony of Australasian gannets (one of only two nesting sites in the country) and year-round it's a popular surf spot for Aucklanders. It's another intriguing facet to the region, a dramatic, wind-whipped coastline that is in stark contrast to the bucolic montage of farms, vineyards and horse studs inland.
How do you conclude an indulgent day of wine tasting? With a beer, of course. Hallertau is a popular dog and kid-friendly craft brewery that makes everything from clean, crisp pilsners to rich, barrel-aged porters. It's yet another example of what the region (and arguably the country) does so well – an unpretentious venue quietly producing award-winning fare without pomp or pageantry.
Air New Zealand flies direct from Sydney and Melbourne to Auckland. Phone 13 24 76, see airnewzealand.com.au
NZ Wine Pro offers wine-themed tours of Kumeu, Matakana and Waiheke Island. Tours start from $NZ135pp and include tastings and pick-up/drop-off in central Auckland. See nzwinepro.co.nz
Rob McFarland was a guest of NZ Wine Pro and the four venues mentioned.